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Bellingham woman wins world title after battling injuries

Daphne Sluys at the end of the 4x100 Meter Relay W55 on Aug. 16, at the Masters World Outdoor Championships in Lyon, France.
Daphne Sluys at the end of the 4x100 Meter Relay W55 on Aug. 16, at the Masters World Outdoor Championships in Lyon, France. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Bellingham’s Daphne Sluys, 55, earned the title of 2015 world champion in the women 55-59 400-meter run with a time of 67.32 seconds at the World Masters Association Outdoor Championships in Lyon, France.

At the championships, held Aug. 4-16, athletes representing 65 countries competed, with the United States coming in fourth at 160 total medals. Sluys won her world title following her three gold medals at the 2015 USATF National Masters Track and Field Championship on July 23-26 in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It feels great to have had such a successful season,” Sluys said. “Especially because five weeks before nationals I came down with an Achilles injury.”

In France, Sluys ran 11 races in 13 days. She went into the competition with mild swelling in her Achilles. The extra care she took with her trainers left her feeling better at the end of the competition than when it began, she said.

Safely dealing with her injuries is a top priority for Sluys.

Mental preparation for international competition is also essential.

There are races she has experienced during competition where the start is different than expected, or there is not space for a warm-up routine and the stress can get to an athlete, Sluys said.

“Can you deal with the variety of situations that are going to come at you?” Sluys said is a question she asks herself. “Can you deal with those in the moment and come out on top?”

When preparing for Nationals and Worlds, Sluys had to consider the heat in Florida and France. One day, she recalls, after her 100-meter race it was 102 degrees, with a track temperature of 124 degrees.

“That day when you walked onto the track, it was like walking past an oven door that was open,” she said.

Getting in line, athletes were complaining about their fingers burning at the touch of the track. Sluys poured water on herself so her body could focus on performing, rather than exhaust itself trying to cool down.

“I knew I could survive it,” she said. “Everyone was in the same situation so I knew I was going to be the tougher one.”

Sluys has been competing in masters events since 2007, at the age of 47. In 2009 she won the W45 Decathlon. In 2010 she won gold in the Pentathlon and the pole vault. Multiple injuries forced Sluys to take time off and she returned to compete in 2014, barely making it to nationals. To come back from that in 2015 and win a world championship was evidence of smart training, she said.

“Those injuries taught me the strong link between your mind, your body, and your emotions,” Sluys said. “You need all those components to be pointing in the same direction in order to improve.”

Steve Kemp, a coach and athlete, worked with Sluys for about seven months prior to the 2015 world championship.

“She was doing a lot of things right with her training before I met her,” he said. “She did have pretty good results in her times at nationals.”

His job as a coach, Kemp said, is to come in and not just improve upon what someone is already good at, but to take their weaknesses on the track and turn them into strengths.

“My philosophy is to improve their weakest link,” he said. “If you can make their weakest link a strength, then they will elevate themselves as an athlete so much quicker.”

With Sluys, Kemp incorporated lunges and bounding exercises to bring more power to her stride.

“The thing I like about her the most as far as her ability to learn is that she will listen to everything I say and then actually try to implement it,” Kemp said. “And she doesn’t ever complain.”

Now that the season is over, Sluys will not run for a month. Under Kemp’s instruction, she will not even jog.

As a masters athlete, preventing injury is more important than it was when she was younger, Sluys said.

“I don’t think you’ll find any world-class athletes who don’t know how to handle injuries,” she said.

The trick is to deal with them and stay active, balancing training alongside responsibilities with work and family. Sluys is a math instructor at Western Washington University and often exercises between classes she teaches.

“When I’m teaching math, I’m actually resting between work outs,” she said.

Not over-training is something Sluys said she learned how to do more recently. It’s better not to train every day, she said.

During peak season she will do a top-speed workout about once a week, training four or five days and only running three of those. Her runs will focus separately on speed, endurance and distance. She incorporates a couple weight sessions and believes in the importance of cross-training.

Looking into the next season, Sluys is looking for more ways to branch out. She is considering another decathlon and wants to train for hurdles, an event she has never done before.

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